Virtual Teams: The serious upsides of working in pyjamas

This post continues our series on openly sharing our approach to leading a virtual team – a joint project with Maren Deepwell (cross-posted here) for which we write a monthly blog post, some of which are special podcast/conference editions.

September

This month we discuss some of the more serious upsides to home working.

Maren: We’ve previously talked a lot about all the strategies we’ve adopted to support home working and the challenges it brings with it. But at the end of a few weeks of working as long and hard as we can the upside of working remotely, of not having to commute or be in an office is at the forefront of my mind. It’s the first time in ten years that I’m not heading out to work at this time of year (just after the largest event we run) and I’m finding it much easier to get on with things from home. As we are a small team, even one or two staff being absent has a big impact and that easily happens in cold & flu season. Being able to take short breaks, eat, walk around and even have a nap has enabled me to work better than I was able to in our office in previous years. In addition it’s easier to catch up on life after a week away from home. Laundry is easier to hang up when your desk is only a few steps away. Whilst I always prefer staff to take time off when sick, working from home seems often much more possible and productive when working in an office wouldn’t be. For instance, being able to wear warm, comfortable clothes, have tea, look out of the window… every small advantage of home working helps with being exhausted and I am finding that an unexpected bonus. My cat is a great home working companion and he helps get me through the day. How about you? What home working upsides are you finding helpful just now?

Martin: Being already at home for deliveries or tradespeople is a big win. It also saves money on childcare as I’m at home to see my daughter in from school. Usually I’ll get her setup with her homework and she is fine for the last couple of hours I need to work. Where it gets tricky is school holidays and when I need to travel. This has recently got harder as up until last year my wife was doing her PhD, which gave her a lot of flexibility. Whilst her current full-time job has some work flexibility it’s not to the same degree. One of the nice things about working for ALT, even before moving to a distributed team, is its responsiveness to changes in personal circumstances and commitment to being a flexible employer. Something I was aware of when I started working from home, mainly thanks to my interest in wearables and fitness trackers, was the lack of activity I was getting each day. Whilst my office is in the attic and I get many trips to the kitchen for cups of tea it still falls short of the recommended daily activity. My solution for topping this up is to replace what would have been my morning commute with 50 minutes of exercise. As this is a mixture of a aerobic and weights it turns out it is actually better than my old commute which was a 30 minute walk to and from the station so you could argue working in a distributed team has helped me have a better lifestyle and overall wellbeing. Have you found you’ve replaced your own commute with anything?

Maren: In the past few years my personal circumstances have become a lot more complicated as I’ve become the carer for my parents. Working from home full time means I am now more easily able to juggle work and other commitments although travelling etc can also be a logistical challenge. Everyone has stuff they are trying to balance and being a distributed team makes that more possible in the long term. Regular exercise meanwhile is more of a recent addition to my lifestyle as I never found an activity I really enjoyed until I started running to raise funds for cancer research a few summers ago. What began as an attempt to give back to those who saved my mother’s life turned into an unexpected love for running. The balance and headspace I get from heading outside and clocking up miles has become very important to me, but when I was still office based the only time I could fit it in was very early in the morning and that became harder in the winter and less safe. Now, thanks to being home based, I can fit in a run more flexibly and keep active more regularly. To keep moving during the day, I also have a smart watch and one of the features it has is to remind me to get up every hour if I have sat still for too long. Other upsides for me are saving money not having to commute, eating better food and more cheaply, and being able to nap! I’ve become very good at napping and a half hour nap at lunchtime can make my afternoon more productive. There’s something here around not abusing the trust and freedom that comes with being a distributed team, about how personal and professional sides of life mix. We hear a lot about how work is starting to become more and more pervasive, but over the past 10 years I have also developed a healthy respect for how much the personal impacts on professional practice and performance. Working in a distributed team gives me a greater sense of empowerment to manage my time, but also responsibility to look out for my own wellbeing and work/life balance.

Martin: Trust is an interesting topic. When people find out I work remotely often the first question is how do I get up each morning. Some of this is actually enforced on me as I would need to get up anyway to get my daughter to school, enjoying my work is also a great motivator. My usual response to the question is it’s often not an issue to start work, the problem is to actually finish at the end of my working day. So as well as not abusing the trust in being in a distributed team, there is a degree of trust that you as an individual will look after your own wellbeing. The next question I often get asked is whether it is hard to work when the weather is sunny outside. Living in Scotland I immediately benefit from it being nice outside less often removing that temptation. When it is nice I will try and take advantage of this when I can. Our Wi-Fi extends to parts of the garden and we have various garden tables and chairs I can work from. The time I spend working outside is however restricted by tasks I can achieve on a single screen, at my desk I’ve got a 4 screen setup:

Even if I can’t work outside nicer weather is often the cue for me to have lunch outside or at least in our conservatory. Spending so much time at home I do occasionally find myself experiencing cabin fever. I only recently discovered that apparently even brief interactions with nature can go a long to ease isolation-induced depression. Unknowingly perhaps my body already knew this because as well as being a long time runner last year I bought my first road bike and often go on evening bike rides. As winter draws in these are curtailed and I find myself already trying to mentally prepare myself for the long grey winter days. What are the questions people ask you when they find out your work in a distributed team? Have you experience cabin fever yet?

Maren: The first question about working remotely I get asked is how I manage staff without supervising their work in person. How can I trust things are being done without seeing it, without being there etc. I rarely get asked how I myself cope with working culture, motivation or work life balance partly because I am a CEO and partly because of the assumption that I have it sorted (‘you are SO organised…’). My answer to the remote working question is that being part of a distributed team is a two way street. Staff need to want to do it, adjust or learn how to do things in a way that works for them AND the organisation. Everyone needs to be willing to make the most of the opportunities that being part of a virtual organisation offers, we can’t do that for them.

I struggle with loneliness and cabin fever and my mental well-being just as everyone else does, but ultimately I find working remotely liberating. I like the freedom and responsibility that comes with it and that is the biggest upside for me. The mentoring I’ve done over the past six years has shown me how important it is to me to be able to make things happen, to change a bit of the world (as cheesy as that sounds) and I feel more empowered to do that as part of a virtual team than I did when I was tied to a desk, managing an office space. Running virtual operations may take just as much effort, but there’s far more scope to improve and innovate than our previous working environment ever offered. That in turn really motivates me on dark, grey mornings or when I feel isolated. It also helps to have a bit of inspiration – which hangs above my desk:

That brings me to one last question for you: any tips for making the most of your physical work space at home?

Martin: In terms of physical space I’d certainly recommend trying to have a permanent corner in your house that you call your office. My office at home is also the spare room so I occasionally get turfed out when we have guests and whilst I can work on other parts of the house I find it hard to beat the comfort of my desk and office chair, plus everything is setup for me so on the morning I can just turn on my computer and I’m ready to go. Creating your own space is also an opportunity to think about the space/setup that’s going to work best for you. Given the rise of flexible and home based working there is a growing list of options for desk and clever storage systems that aren’t beige or grey. I know some remote and office based workers who are big fans of standing desks and treadmill desks. These aren’t options I’ve ever considered and would recommend talking to someone who uses these setups first. One of the big advantages I think of working from home is it’s an opportunity to create an environment that’s going to work for you. When I’ve been office based I’ve often encountered restrictions on how much personalisation you can do and being a home worker is an opportunity to perhaps say goodbye to that clean desk policy, restrictions on what food you can eat, or the noise you make – an opportunity to crack open the garlicky pasta, switch on the radio and keep comfortable in your PJs.  

Things we’ve been reading:

4 Comments


  1. I have worked for the best part of the last fifteen years at least partially at home and much of your experience resonates with me. As highlighted personal discipline is critical, not necessarily the discipline to work like you I find I am more productive but the discipline to move and to exercise is critical ,I schedule a dog walk, each day, the discipline to start and finish work and remark the experience, if possible, from you home life. For family it can also be a difficult adjustment (to the notion of you being there and not being available to them all the time (This was a major issue when my children were much younger ). On the whole I enjoy working form home , I do miss the interaction with and stimulation of others an office provides (in particular in an academic context). Team directorship of distributed teams is challenging (I wrestled with this for about ten years) but more recently I have been working on projects with EU partners where this is the norm. Enjoying your reflections though.


    1. You are the third person to mention ‘walking the dog’, I’m sure Mrs H is praying I ignore the hint. I don’t have a dog but do try and go for a short walk during lunch. I can relate to the adjustment for family, particularly if they are occasional visitors. Might be worth us revisiting distributed team leadership and management next month as I sure there is more we can unpick in this area.

      Thanks for your comment
      Martin


  2. Martin, you don’t need a lamp in your room with 4 monitors. It truly looks like Mission Control in your home office.

    I work at home 3 days a week and find that is a really nice balance. I rarely feel like I am getting cabin fever on the days I work from home, and going into the office on Tues/Thurs gives me enough contact to help me feel connected to what everyone else is doing. Lots of time for hallway chats and office pop in’s.

    For exercise, I bike to work 2 days a week and love that. When I am at home, we splurged 2 years ago and stocked up on fitness equipment. We have some space in our house and have a treadmill, rowing machine and some free weights. I love being able to pop upstairs at any time during my work at home days and do a half hour run on the treadmill.

    I’ve got a convertible sit/stand desk that I picked up at Ikea last year. Best of both worlds there, and I find I spend equal time sitting & standing during the day. Adds some variety.

    On the days I work at home, I rely on Skype and RocketChat to keep up with what everyone else is up to at work, and I’m in a ton of communities, so Slack, Mattermost, Twitter are all open & help me feel connected to others.

    Best part of working at home for me is that, as my kids get older, their friends tend to come to our house after school because there is a grown up around. So, I get to see my kids friends regularly. Feeding them after school snacks yields a lot of great info I would never know ;).


    1. Hi Clint – The monitors mean I’ve got perfectly light for every video call ;) In my last job before working for ALT I’d work at home 4 days a week with one day in the office. It was a revelation when I started with ALT at how much just that one day meant in terms of social connection and keeping in touch with a more of an office based organisation so can relate to what you are saying.

      Given we are a G Suite Edu user most of our communication software is as part of that. I’m waiting for the new Hangouts Chat to mature for a Slack shaped solution for our team. In terms of other communication channels Twitter is the main other network I tap … two of the monitors I use are dedicated to monitoring various Tweetdeck columns :)

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